On race, bias, identity and other grad-school bullshit

Last night, Jonathan Coulton opened for Aimee Mann on the first night of their tour in Washington, and this happened:

JC: This is a song about a giant squid who hates himself

Crowd: Whooooooooooooo!!!

I laughed. Then something hit me.

This is really, really “white.”

And suddenly I felt a little guilty.

Ridiculous, right? Just because the crowd is about 95% white (I scanned after this feeling hit me and saw one African-American woman along with a handful of Asian people) doesn’t I should feel bad about being there. Right?

I may have been a little more defensive because I had just read, along with everyone else online yesterday, the profile piece on Rachel Dolezal, who managed to pass for “black” for a while before some investigative journalists found that she was not.

A couple of lines deep in the piece struck me:

And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice.

and …

Perhaps that itself was the secret to the power of the Dolezal phenomenon—the overwhelming whiteness of it all.

As I read this, I started to think the writer meant “white” as an insult. “Oh, I can’t be mad at this arrogant, condescending woman (Dolezal). She can’t help it. She’s white.”

But was I correct in thinking that way? I wasn’t so sure.

So I did a little experiment. I posted the link on Facebook and Twitter and asked people to give me their reactions before I countered with mine. I didn’t want them to be influenced by what I had to say, and I wanted to see if anyone saw the same thing I did.

The short answer: No. No one did. The bulk of the reaction: “This is brilliant.” One right-leaning Twitter respondent countered that the story was 10 minutes of her life she’d never get back. On Facebook, someone else (who is not writing from a place of white privilege) called the writer “really annoying.”

All of the feedback was good. I don’t know how that happened. That might be a first on social media.

And we had a few interesting thoughts on entitlement. Dolezal felt entitled to choose her race, and she still feels entitled to compare her experience as “black” to the experiences of actual black people.

white-choice

So what we could say is that Dolezal isn’t necessarily representative of all whites. But the mentality she has is uniquely white — or, at least, unique to people who don’t experience appearance-based discrimination unless they seek it out like a tourist.

Of course, it’s tricky because racial labels are slippery. Many years ago, I read a piece from a writer traveling in Brazil who found that people who would be considered “Latin(a/o/x)” in the USA and elsewhere considered themselves “white” in Brazil. I also found myself in a conversation recently in which a fellow Person of Likely European Descent (PLED, a perfect acronym) was accused of seeing a relatively harmless issue through the lens of “white privilege,” and others piled on, saying we needed to listen to the accuser because she’s a “person of color.” She’s Asian-American, and while I don’t know too much about her, I know she went to very good Boston-area colleges for undergrad and law school. My Starbucks barmate, an African-American man who’s old enough to have seen some shit, got a good chuckle out of that.

That’s not to deny that Asian-Americans have ever had it tough. Rosa Parks isn’t part of their experience, but WWII internment and other atrocities are. They’re simply different experiences. Not all “persons of color” have the same circumstances, just as not all white people do.

“White privilege” is real — in certain contexts. A Trump child and a poor kid from a meth-addicted family in Appalachia may not have much in common other than the fact that they’ll never face discrimination based on the color of their skin. But that one thing in common is huge.

And, as the person in our discussion insisted, “white privilege” isn’t inherently evil. It just is. It’s just a blind spot. We have them when we’re driving, and it takes a lot of effort to see what’s there, and even then, we don’t get the best view. And we all have those blind spots, whether it’s from race, class or whatever.

One of the people in our Facebook discussion argued that I should try to consider that the author was writing this “to and for other black women.” I took issue with that. Then I second-guessed myself again. Here’s why:

I’m surely a little defensive this week because I’ve been shredded on a message board (and elsewhere, but the message board is pertinent here). This message board is by and for lesbians. Years ago, when I noticed it was sending me a lot of traffic and people were discussing my work (at the time, a nice even split of appreciation and criticism), a couple of people from the board reached out and asked me not to identify the board. I agreed, and I agreed I would never post to it — even though it’s anonymous and no one would know.

Over the years, that message board has gotten a bit more hostile. I know several people who no longer participate. They hate me, and they hate most women’s soccer journalists. But they also hate each other, so we shouldn’t take it personally.

It’s also become a classic “bubble” in which false narratives and fake news take root. People on that board accused me of taking money from the Washington Spirit to write a blog post that devoted most of its words to criticizing the Spirit but defended the club on two counts most important to them — the “homophobia” charges against the owner and the Ali Krieger trade. (Not the scant return on that trade, just the notion of trading her in general.) And they accused me of other unprofessional conduct as well.

The way it works on that board is this:

  • Post A: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe falsified evidence.”
  • Post B: “Yeah, he’s a jerk.”
  • Post C: “Yeah, can you believe he falsified evidence?”
  • Post D: “Yeah. I bet he’s also cruel to animals. That’s just typical for someone who falsified evidence.”

The flip speculation becomes the “truth.” It’s as true on this board as it is in any obnoxious community of wingnuts who start blaming immigrants and liberals for everything in life.

All a valid concern. But was I incorrectly applying it to this piece on Dolezal? I think so. The target audience may have been “black women,” but it’s out there for all to see. There’s nothing false in it. And others who’ve read it don’t believe that it props up any unfair stereotypes of white people. An intelligent person isn’t going to read it and think all white people are like Dolezal. Anyone who does read it that way … well, that person probably brought a few issues to the table already.

And there’s value in having a community. A piece that’s written “for black women” (or for Hispanic men or Scandinavians or whatever) isn’t inherently feeding a malicious bubble. For one thing, there’s no barrier to entry. Nothing stopped me from reading that piece. If something had been factually inaccurate (and I didn’t see anything of that sort), nothing would stop me from being able to point it out.

That piece may be “for black women.” But not in any discriminatory sense. Anyone’s welcome. (Now, if a white person tried to pretend to be black … well …)

And that community brings me back to the Aimee Mann/Jonathan Coulton show. Should I feel guilty that I was in a theatre in D.C. watching a show in which we white people joke and write sad songs about how much our lives suck? I don’t think so.

lame

It did occur to me that there’s some “white privilege” at play in the sense that most of the people in the theatre live relatively comfortable lives in which they can afford to make fun of their own lameness. It’s not exclusively white, of course, and there are surely plenty people of color who can relate to Coulton’s sad/witty take on suburban ennui and isolation:

And I don’t think people would want Coulton writing about the African-American experience, at least not with any pretense of living it first-hand. That would make him … Rachel Dolezal.

But the important thing about communities like the one at the concert or the one reading the Dolezal article isn’t who’s there. It’s who’s welcome. Singing or writing a piece that’s going to resonate mostly with people of your own skin color isn’t inherently wrong. Telling people they’re not welcome — that is wrong.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, the Internet seems to be splitting into communities that refuse to converse with each other. It might be some alt-right race-baiting site. It might be a message board that slanders people in ways that can be Googled, then tells them to quit reacting on Twitter, let alone coming onto the board to try to reason with anyone. We’ve seen the havoc that such things can wreak in politics. And I have to admit it’s been getting me down on a personal level. It’s tough to find a place where we belong. Sounds odd coming from someone with more than 1,000 Facebook friends and more than 7,000 Twitter followers (most of whom signed on years ago when I was one of USA TODAY’s first Twitter users), but that’s where we stand.

Not sure what to do about it. If I were as brilliant as Aimee Mann or Jonathan Coulton, maybe I’d write a song about it.

But the Internet’s not all bad. It allows me to write long self-examinations that prove that I engage in long self-examinations. (And if the colleague who accused me of never doing that is reading — hi!)

And Jonathan Coulton has released a lot of songs under a Creative Commons license, so you can enjoy this or several other animations of a song about a zombie trying to convince his co-worker that it’s simply not “big picture” of him to try to keep the zombies from eating his brains:

 

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